The Making of the Film
She was one of the most powerful women in the Western World -- the Queen of the British Empire -- revered, feared, and worshiped. He was one of the least powerful men in all of society -- a lowly servant whose primary job was to look after horses. Yet when circumstance brought together Queen Victoria and the Scottish servant John Brown, the result was a friendship that scandalized the nation and nearly toppled the British Monarchy.
Victorian times were times of tremendous paradox. It was an era of great invention, exploration, innovation, and change, but also a time of social repression, strict moralism, and class division. And nowhere was this paradox more apparent than in Queen Victoria herself.
After all, what could be more paradoxical than the widowed, self-exiled Queen of England -- a woman of renowned staunch will, high morals, and undying loyalty to her deceased husband -- carrying on a highly unusual relationship with her own Scottish servant while her family battled for power and her people called out for her return?
Yet history has acknowledged that this is precisely what happened in the 1860s.
Mrs. Brown is the true story of two people who defied convention, politics, and the rigid rules of royal life to touch one another. Their story is a drama that took place behind high walls and palace windows -- yet had a resonant effect on an entire country.
Filmed in sumptuous detail on location in Scotland and England, Mrs. Brown opens up the long-shrouded history of Victoria's second great love and invites audience to glimpse the private lives and styles of the Victorian power elite on the brink of the modern age. For in the aftermath of her own emotional reawakening, Queen Victoria presided over her nation's transformation into a 20th-century industrial power and empire.
Mrs. Brown is directed by John Madden (Ethan Frome, Golden Gate) and written by Jeremy Brock. Sarah Curtis (The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain) is the producer; and Douglas Rae, Andrea Calderwood, Rebecca Eaton, and Nigel Warren-Green are the executive producers. Preeminent British star of stage and screen Judi Dench gives a rich performance as Queen Victoria -- the woman whose own personal style and mores led to the tenor of the Victorian Era -- and Billy Connolly, best known previously for his comedy work, is the irreverent, charming and willful Scot John Brown, who lifts the Queen's depression. Antony Sher stars as Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, the forerunner of the modern charismatic politician, who battled for the Queen's loyalty even as she resisted all outside contact. The cast also includes Geoffrey Palmer, Richard Pasco, and David Westhead. The film is produced by Ecosse Films, one of Britain's leading producers.
Douglas Rae, the executive producer of Mrs. Brown and a native of Scotland, had long been intrigued by the story of the Scottish servant John Brown, who is historically know to have been one of Queen Victoria's closest and most unlikely friends. A veteran producer of documentaries and television specials, Rae's interest in Brown coincided with his desire to make a dramatic feature film with his friend and Scottish colleague Billy Connolly.
"The more I learned about the story, the more I felt like this was one of the great untold human stories of the last century," say Rae. "And it had never been put on film."
In fact, several decades ago, Sean Connery and Elizabeth Taylor were set to play the roles of John Brown and Queen Victoria, but intimations that the Royal Family would be very unhappy with a film about the scandal nipped the production in the bud. But now, Rae saw the story not just as one of royal scandal but of poignant friendship.
It soon became clear to Rae and the film's producer Sarah Curtis, that the scope of Mrs. Brown was a story meant to be told as a feature for the big screen. Rae than approached rising British screenwriter Jeremy Brock with the concept.
"I became absolutely fascinated by Victoria, who was a very complex woman; she was so much more than the dour, repressive woman depicted in history books," says Brock. "But I was even more intrigued by John Brown, about whom very little has been written. I was unable to track down any diaries or letters from John Brown, and I really wanted to get inside of this man's head."
The more Brock researched, the more he saw how impossible the notion of affection should have been between these two people. "Here's a woman who thinks her life is over and no one can possible contradict her word, and along comes this man who is not afraid to tell her to get back on with living. You have to realize that no one ever spoke to Victoria in a normal way until Brown came into her life. In the Queen's Court, there was no way to express yourself except through protocol. They couldn't just talk to one another; they had to do it in a language that protected them from their own feelings but also prevented any true expression of affection. Precisely because Brown flouted all the rules, he became the one man Victoria could confide in. It's a love story in the deepest sense."
Brock also found himself drawn in by the secondary characters in Victoria's life, such as the arch politician Benjamin Disraeli. "What I adored about Disraeli is that he's the opposite of John Brown in that Brown has absolutely no hidden agenda and Disraeli is always looking to gain something from the Queen. When Disraeli realizes that John Brown doesn't want anything from the Queen but her loving devotion, a concept that astonishes him, he sees that he has found a man he can use."
With a draft of his script completed, Brock began working closely with director John Madden. Like Brock, Madden was deeply moved by the extraordinary relationship at the core of Mrs. Brown. "I found the story incredibly interesting. We live in an age when people try to say what they feel, but back then, they didn't. So you have this story of a tender friendship of mutual need that develops in an intensely ritualized world in which people behave not according to their feelings but according to the rules of structure. Whatever Victoria said was the way it had to be -- if she had even a whim, people would immediately conform to it -- and the bizarre existence that followed from the etiquette and rituals of power rendered her completely remote from any true intimacy.
"John Brown puts her back in touch with her emotions by doing away with all the rules. And yet the very moving part of the story is that John Brown can never really have a loving relationship with the Queen because he is a servant and she is a monarch, and the constraints are too enormous. Queen Victoria and John Brown were a glorious mismatch, and I felt that carried within it enormous potential for humor, poignancy, and tragedy on screen."
"I also felt that the story of Mrs. Brown addresses a very modern problem," adds Madden. "We're all still desperately trying to work out how we really feel about things, whether we're really in love with one another, and whether our roles in life are getting in the way of our feelings."
Madden also found himself compelled by the true tale's multiple layers of intrigue. "There are so many entries to this story: as an impossible love story, as a political thriller, as a look inside a fascinating closed world. I wanted to explore them all."
Like Jeremy Brock, Madden began an intensive exploration of Victorian times. Meanwhile, casting the primary roles occurred almost instantaneously. "There was never a moment's doubt about the three main roles," explains Douglas Rae. "There was only one man who could play John Brown, and that was Billy Connolly; and there was only one woman who could play Victoria, and that was Judi Dench. And Antony Sher couldn't have been any more perfect for Disraeli."
Although Judi Dench is essentially considered aristocracy in the British theatre, she had never before taken on the lead role in a feature film. Moved by Brock's script, however, she found herself utterly captivated by the personality of Victoria.
"I don't usually do a lot of historical research for roles, but in this case I really wanted to know more about Victoria. Like most people, I had grown up thinking she was a stuffy, arrogant, severe, and unfeeling person. But reading her diaries and biographies, I realized she was a very passionate person indeed," states Dench. "In fact, she was a very sensual woman and urgently needed to be regarded as such. She missed that after Albert's death. John Brown treated her like a woman, and that made the most extraordinary difference to her."
Dench also discovered a possible reason for the Queen's pursuit of John Brown's friendship. "I read that the last time she and Albert were leaving Scotland, just before Albert's death, John Brown made a reference to hoping they would be well or hoping that there wouldn't be a death. Later, she felt that John must have had a spiritual bond with Albert; that in some way Albert's spirit was a par of John Brown."
Dench also found that her research gave her clues to the Queen's physical behavior. "I discovered she was left-handed, for example. Of course, I also realized that after Albert's death she never came out of black, she never wore makeup, she was utterly unadorned. So to play Victoria, one can't be too vain!"
Although Billy Connolly had been set to play the Scottish hero John Brown from the beginning of the film's development, no one knew quite what to expect from the comedian best known for rough-hewn contemporary humor. "I was so impressed with Billy's performance," says Judi Dench. "From the minute Billy took on the role, he stopped being Billy Connolly the performer and became entirely John Brown."
Adds John Madden: "Billy Connolly has always been all about pushing envelopes. If there's a taboo there it's there to be broken -- and that's also how he operates in his creative life. I think it was very brave to put himself in this circle of actors, but he was born to play the role, and the camera always sees that if it's there. He has such a wonderful affinity with John Brown. And there is an instinctive genius and talent in Billy that is always waiting to come out."
Connolly also immersed himself in the character, even engaging in a physical training program to walk with the straight-backed, broad-shouldered pride known to have been John Brown's way. "We actually found a photograph of John Brown, from the infancy of the photographic age. He was a very rugged, handsome man and bore a striking similarity to Billy," says Douglas Rae.
The filmmakers were also struck by how the relationship between Judi Dench and Billy Connolly mirrored that of Victoria and John Brown. "There's something immediately fascinating about this coupling between an actress who is practically royalty and a Scottish comedian known for his irreverent, earthy style, because it recalls the oddness of the original couple."
Equally important to the film was the essence of Benjamin Disraeli, whose charismatic style set the political tone of the day. "In the presence of Antony Sher you had the feeling that Disraeli had come to life all over again," says John Madden. "The meticulousness of detail and research he brought to bear on this character is amazing." Sher even went so far as to live in Disraeli's 19th-century home for several days and wore a special mouthpiece to accentuate Disraeli's famously pointed chin.
Production of Mrs. Brown was a very intense affair. "It was a massive challenge," says producer Sarah Curtis. "Obviously, this is a film about the royal lifestyle, and grand opulence had to be there on the screen. Fortunately, we live in a country that is filled with palaces and stately homes."
In the end, Mrs. Brown shot in a couple of authentic location -- exteriors were shot at Osborne, which had been Victoria's holiday home in the Isle of Wight, and ballroom scenes were shot at Taymouth Castle, where Victoria had danced on her honeymoon with Albert. Unfortunately, the production had found many royal homes off-limits to the film because friends and relatives were worried about offending the Monarchy.
Production designer Martin Childs, who makes his debut as production designer on Mrs. Brown, had previously served as art director on The Madness of King George and Portrait of a Lady, honing various "tricks to establish grandeur on a budget." John Madden worked closely with Childs and costume designer Deirdre Clancy to establish his visual concept for the film: "Visually, the film represents Victoria's emotional life. In the beginning, the entire court is programmed into a ritual of grief so that part of the film is made up of very formalized, symmetrical compositions. Everything is designed to remind people that the Monarch is the very center of everything that happens. But the moment Victoria's spell is broken by John Brown, the story becomes about two people, and the visual syntax becomes more natural. The camera becomes looser, and the composition is less controlled. The color scheme moves from black into many colors, from cool interiors to vibrant exteriors, because that's completely natural to the story."
Madden also wanted to contrast the lavishness of the Queen's palace existence with the more primal, raw beauty of the Scottish Highlands. The production team moved to Scotland for several days, experiencing what Sarah Curtis calls "possibly the worst weather to ever afflict a production." Although Scotland has a reputation for notoriously rough weather, Curtis says, "Scotland threw absolutely everything it has at us within the first six days." A glance at Victoria's journals shows that conditions weren't usually much better for her own entourage.
In the end, sacrifices were made in order to heighten the feeling of authentically recreating the times and interior life of Victoria. "I think we all came to the film thinking this was a chance to explore an unexamined time, an unexamined woman, an unexamined friendship that changed history," summarized Curtis. "The challenge for all of us was to be as meticulously truthful as possible about the circumstances under which this unexpected liaison occurred. There was an enormous attention to detail on this production, but what come to the fore are the human feelings."
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